Note: Dr Elena Woodacre was speaking to David Musgrove for an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast in which she answered popular questions on medieval queens. You can listen to the full discussion here:
Q: Were medieval queens able to exercise real power and engage in court politics?
“Queens did play a significant role in court politics on a number of levels,” says Dr Woodacre. “They were right at the centre of power as half of the ruling unit. So we would expect them to have been engaged in some way. Sometimes we can see that very overtly, and particularly at times when, say, their husband is absent or incapacitated.”
“We have to look at kings and queens together; they’re two halves of the same whole. But for a consort queen, the amount of power and influence she had had a lot to do with her relationship with her husband. If she’s got a very good relationship with her husband, if he loves her, if he trusts her, he’s more likely to seek out and listen to her counsel, her ideas. And when she intercedes and makes requests or suggestions, he’s more likely to go with that.”
This idea of queenly intercession, where a queen might publicly ask the king to pardon someone, to change his mind, or to grant a request that she’s made, was an important aspect of their power and influence. Dr Woodacre cites one particular example of when Philippa of Hainault apparently made a plea to her husband King Edward III to pardon the burghers of Calais after the long siege of that town in 1347. She notes that we have to be very careful with the details of what actually happened, in the way that it’s described by the chronicler Jean Froissart, but stresses that the very fact that Froissart described it at all demonstrates that queenly intercession was recognised as part of the medieval political system.
Q: Who was the most beautiful medieval queen?
“That question really speaks nicely to the ideals of queenship or the expectations of medieval queens,” explains Dr Woodacre. “I always summarise them as the four ‘goods’ and the three ‘Ps’. Queens were expected to be the ultimate good woman and a model of kind of virtuous behaviour. They were expected to be good wives and mothers, and good rulers, but were also expected to be pious, peacemakers, and pretty.”
“It seems like a bit of a trite summary,” she says, “but it does really sum up what was expected of medieval queens. And beauty was obviously a huge part of this. So, queens were meant to kind of represent contemporary ideals of beauty.” However, queens of the age were often described in an idealistic fashion, whatever they actually looked like.
One queen who might have fulfilled this beauty requirement, says Dr Woodacre, is Elizabeth Woodville. Her looks may have played a big part in her rise up the social ladder as she went from being the daughter of a mere knight to marrying King Edward IV.
Q: How did the role of medieval queens mix with their roles as mothers?
“It’s really important to know that queens couldn’t really be hands-on mothers,” explains Dr Woodacre. “They had huge responsibilities. They were running their households, their lands, engaged in political and ceremonial aspects of court life. They often had to be on the move with their husbands. So many courts were itinerant in the Middle Ages. They were moving around. All of this meant that they weren’t always in the same place as their children.”
“Royal children were often set up with little miniature households of their own. They had teams of servants and nurses, governesses, tutors. They even had their own laundresses. That’s not to say the queens had no input into their children’s lives and education, even though the children had this support network of their own households to look after them. We know that queens were very involved in things like their education, for example. So Isabella of Castile and her own daughter, Catherine of Aragon, had really significant control and direction of their children’s education. Even if queens weren’t with them every day, we know that many queens did have close, and sometimes perhaps rather complicated, relations with their children – as many mothers and children do.”
Q: Why is Eleanor of Aquitaine so remarkable?
One famous royal mother discussed in the podcast was Eleanor of Aquitaine, a woman who bore eight children by her husband King Henry II of England. But far beyond motherhood, she demonstrated the multitude of roles that a queen could have.
“Eleanor is a queen for all seasons,” says Dr Woodacre. “She started out as the heiress of Aquitaine, one of the largest and wealthiest domains of Europe. That made her a really desirable bride, but also gave her a great deal of personal significance.
“In her first marriage, she was queen of France, and famously went on the Second Crusade with her husband, Louis VII. She caused quite a stir there, with rumours of a supposedly incestuous affair with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers. When her marriage to Louis VII ended, that caused considerable comment by contemporaries. Then she married Henry FitzEmpress [also known as Henry Plantagenet], and that was really significant in terms of beginning to create the so-called Angevin empire. She became queen again, this time of England. Very few women have been queen in multiple marriages.”
Q: How much influence did queens have in building palaces and castles?
They were responsible for not only maintaining those residences, explains Dr Woodacre, but they could undertake building programmes and renovations of their own as well.
“A great example of this is Margaret of Anjou. She received a palace that used to belong to Humphrey of Gloucester, and she expanded it into what became known as the Palace of Placentia. She took on a massive expansion of the building, making decorative improvements and installing beautiful tile flooring and glass windows, which were a real luxury at the time.
“She left her real mark on it with her device of the daisy. Her name, Margaret, in French is Marguerite, which means daisy, and she put her mark on it with a daisy pattern as well.”
You can listen to the full discussion about medieval queens on the HistoryExtra podcast page.
Dr Elena (Ellie) Woodacre is a senior lecturer at the University of Winchester who has published extensively on queenship and royal studies.